Marsha Bemko’s secret to producing “Antiques Roadshow”? Wear good shoes.
“If you show up in sandals, I won’t use you,” the executive producer said, referring to the volunteers who assist her during “Roadshow” tapings in cities around the country. “No matter what you say to me, I know. This is a concrete floor and I walk about 15 miles that day.”
Bemko’s shoe of choice: black Adidas sneakers.
The 17th season of PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” kicked off at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center on Saturday. More than 27,000 people applied for the 3,000 pairs of free tickets good for two appraisals and a chance to appear on the show in front of its 10 million weekly viewers. Bemko, the show’s executive producer for the past 12 years, is a loud and proud “Needham girl.”
“It’s nice to be home,” Bemko said with a smile, over the thundering crashes echoing through the exhibition hall where the crew on Friday set up lights, cameras, and tables.
The last time “Roadshow” came to Boston was in 2000 (it won’t return to a city unless five years have passed). This summer, the 14-person team, headed by Bemko, will travel to six cities, taping episodes that will air in 2013. Bemko, 56, describes the show as “smart reality TV.”
“You’re not going to watch a season of ‘Roadshow’ and not learn when the Civil War happened,” she said. “You’re going to learn something about this country, and you won’t notice you’re learning. It’s fun learning.”
Bemko graduated from Westfield State College, where she studied English and journalism. Before her “Roadshow” days, she worked for several WGBH-produced programs for PBS, including the historical series “Culture Shock” (1999) and “Discovering Women” (1995).
Her new show “Market Warriors” — a WGBH reality series in which antiques pickers scour flea markets for valuables and compete to see whose items are worth the most at auction — will premiere July 16.
“We’re taking the ‘Roadshow’ suspenders off,” she said. On “Roadshow,” appraisers can’t put a price on an object and then purchase it from the owner. “It’s considered unethical to tell someone what it’s worth and then buy it,” Bemko said. But “Market Warriors” will be all about buying and selling.
Bemko says she loves her job so much, you couldn’t pry her out of it. It’s hard to believe former “Roadshow” executive producer Aida Moreno had to plead with Bemko to take a position as senior producer for the fifth season.
Bemko’s three kids were ages 10 to 13 at the time, and she didn’t want to travel away from them and her husband, who’s a salesman in Needham.
“I like my husband,” Bemko said. “I wanted to stay home.” But Moreno convinced her and Bemko finally relented. It turned out to be a great fit.
“I’m glad that she did,” said Bemko, who travels to six cities each summer for the show. “I’ve never been happier.”
As she speed-walked from table to table in her olive green “arms and militaria” “Roadshow” T-shirt, she was like a kid loose in a toy store — only she was selecting from sequined dresses worn by an RKO model and Arts and Crafts pottery of the Saturday Evening Girls Club of the North End.
While some people decorate their homes with the latest Crate & Barrel furniture, Bemko — not surprisingly — hits thrift stores.
“I love older things,” she said. “I love what they can teach you.”
During each episode of “Roadshow,” several guests present items they may have found in an attic, bought for 50 cents at an antiques store, or received from a great-grandmother. Appraisers provide background on the history of the object — its origin, creator, perhaps the year of production — then inform the guest how much it’s worth. While monetary value is one aspect Bemko uses when deciding which hidden treasures to film, she’s most interested in hearing an engaging story.
Take Melinda from Atkinson, N.H., who visited the Convention Center Saturday. (“Roadshow” does not disclose participants’ last names.)
Melinda’s father was a photographer for Norman Rockwell, and Melinda modeled for Rockwell starting as a baby. Rockwell painted a portrait of her eating a spoonful of cereal as a girl and sent it to the Kellogg Company to use for an advertisement. Kellogg rejected it.
“They said I was too pretty,” Melinda told Bemko. “They wanted wholesome American kids with red hair and freckles.”
So Rockwell gave the painting to her father. Melinda also owns a wobbly wooden chair that once belonged to Rockwell, which her dad brought home from work one day.
The producer sat in the chair as she listened to the story.
“This is the beauty of my job,” she said. “I’ve gotten to wear Elvis Presley’s jacket, and now I am sitting in Norman Rockwell’s chair.”
The portrait and chair got Bemko’s stamp of approval, and Melinda was thrilled to learn the chair is worth $50,000. “You’re kidding!” she gasped. “I thought it was maybe a couple thousand dollars.” The portrait? Around $40,000.
The item with the highest appraisal of the day was from Binghamton, N.Y. Susan knew her father purchased a Chinese artwork for $500 in 1956, and that was about it. When the appraiser told her the original print dates to 1540 and is now worth about $400,000, Susan wept.
“It’s an unbelievable blessing,” the 62-year-old said after stepping off camera. Tears welling in her eyes, she explained she and her husband both lost their jobs twice due to the economy.
“We’ve lived through some really bad hardship,” she said. A brighter future is in store as the couple hopes to sell the piece and use the money to pay off debt and support their daughter’s college education.
Though Bemko has ultimate say on what gets filmed, it’s the 70 volunteer appraisers who travel to “Roadshow” destinations around the country (their only compensation is a free lunch and the chance to be on TV) who alert her to precious finds.
“Unless it’s jewelry, they’ll see a great object from across the room,” she says. “These are people who have been doing this for decades.”
And they’re clearly enjoying themselves. Consulting producer Dan Farrell of Easthampton compared the filming months of June through August to summer camp.
“It’s our 17th year, and I’m saying ‘welcome back campers.’ . . . A lot of us haven’t seen each other since last summer,” Farrell said during setup on Friday.
Farrell bought the rights to the show in 1981 after seeing it in England and falling in love. The BBC granted him the rights, but the first season did not air in the United States until 1996 when Farrell signed a deal with WGBH. Farrell now selects the appraisers and engages in what he calls “firefighting,” or fixing anything that goes wrong during the event. But it’s Bemko who runs the show, he explained.
“She’s a good boss, but she’s a demanding boss,” he said. “She’s the one with the bullets in her gun, and we all know it.”
By 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Bemko had heard 40 pitches for the show, but lines of people pushing wagons loaded with pottery and paintings still snaked through the hall. Bemko doesn’t leave until the last item is appraised, which could be hours from now.
“You can feel the city,” she said, as she slid into a folding chair and took a quick break. “Boston has a lot of great treasures, and that has kept us producers and our experts very busy.”
Luckily, her feet were holding up. “The best moment of the day is taking these sneakers off,” she said, laughing.